Arse is the new tits. That's just one of the trends I noticed emerging from this year's E3, which is to gaming what London Fashion Week is to people who make trousers for a living. Other trends include games set in post-apocalyptic American cities (I counted approximately 47,000 of these), and games about shooting mud-coloured monsters with no hair, gaping maws and the gait of an irritated orangutan (I counted approximately 47,000 of these, of which 47,000 were set in a post-apocalyptic American city).
But back to the arse. In fact, there's no getting away from the arse if you're sitting in an E3 demo of Tomb Raider: Underworld. They're showing off the underwater level, or at least that's what they're pretending. They're really showing off Lara's new wetsuit, which is reasonably sensible from the front. But when she turns round you see it's barely covering her spectacular buttocks; the bottom half of the suit appears to have been sprayed on using a stencil made by drawing round a Dairylea triangle.
So there's Lara's arse, bold as brass. It's bobbing away in the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean, free to explore without worrying about that air meter now Lara has scuba apparatus. Very practical. Unlike the wetsuit. Or the lack of fins. But at least Lara's got a harpoon gun, which she's using to take out a shark. A red reticule appears around it, suggesting the targeting system hasn't changed much. The Eidos marketing man presenting the demo (the people who actually make the game still can't be trusted to talk about it, apparently) explains that while Lara's 9mm guns will work underwater, bullets won't travel too well. Sticky grenades, however, are very effective.
She also has an underwater camera. Eidos Man shows how you can switch to the first-person viewfinder perspective and take snaps of your adventures. Then, we're told, you can upload them and share them online. I doubt anyone I know would be remotely interested in a photo of a shark being harpooned by a videogame character I happened to be controlling at the time. But then I'm not interested in whether anyone I know is feeling hungover or looking forward to the Radiohead concert or thinking about buying a new fridge, and yet Facebook remains triumphant.
Now Lara's arse is swimming through a stone corridor, at the end of which is a large circular door. This is familiar territory - the door has three holes, and Lara and her arse must go off and find the three axels that fit into them. However, she no longer possesses a Mary Poppins-style backpack capable of holding a dozen guns, 73 medi-packs, half of the treasures of the ancient world and the contents of an Ikea. If an object - such as a giant axel, for example - won't fit in the backpack, Lara will just have to hold it. She can still swim and run, and shoot too if she has a free hand. In addition, objects can be used in melee combat.
Lara has some new and improved equipment to help her out, including a utility light that won't run out of battery and a PDA complete with sonar feature. Send out a ping and it'll bounce off all the hard surfaces within Lara's field of view. This is then used to start constructing a 3D map, which shows the surrounding area as geometric shapes. As you move around levels, you can keep pinging to build up the map. The idea, explains Eidos Man, is to give you a proper reference for navigating a 3D environment - something that can be hard to do with only a 2D map. The sonar feature works both underwater and on land, and looks like it could be very useful for avoiding those "Where's that door I came in again?" moments.
Eidos Man skips forward to a later, drier part of the level. Now Lara's arse is walking through a series of interconnected doorways and corridors - "There's no dot-to-dot play path," he says. Again, we're in familiar territory; there are stone walls to climb, ledges to jump between, chains to shoot and switches to pull. But it all looks better than ever, thanks to some beautiful lighting effects and highly realistic textures. The way moisture runs down the walls is particularly impressive. It's all very quiet; Eidos Man says they deliberately chose to avoid sticking a soundtrack in here, instead allowing the noise of distant dripping water and Lara's lone footsteps echoing through the corridors to build atmosphere. Good choice.
The middle room of the structure is home to a huge Kraken. His tentacles extend throughout the surrounding corridors; they block access to key doors and switches, so Lara must find a way to get rid of him. He's so big bullets will just bounce off so it's a matter of using the environment, of working out what you need to change and how you must do it. More classic Tomb Raider, then.
However, the new "adrenaline moments" aren't quite so archetypal. They replace the quick-time events in Legend and Anniversary, where you had to hit a specified button at the right moment to save Lara in the middle of cut-scenes. "That was fun for a while," says Eidos Man, who clearly has very loose definitions of the words 'fun' and 'a while', "But we wanted to put control back into the player's hands, so we eliminated the need for a button press."
Instead these adrenaline moments occur at predetermined points in each level. An event will occur, and, as Lara's adrenaline kicks in, time and the camera will slow down. This gives you an extra second or two to move her out of harm's way. In the example we're shown, one of the Kraken's tentacles lashes out and whacks the platform Lara is standing on. The screen goes all blurry, everthing happens in slo-mo and Eidos Man manages to make Lara jump to safety before normal service is resumed.
Adrenaline moments do appear to be an improvement over Quick Time Events; no more incongruous cut-scenes and feeling like you're playing some kind of weird, rubbish rhythm-action game. But old-days Tomb Raider fans will recall some of the best, most memorable moments were when something completely unexpected happened, and only the most lightningy of reflexes would save you. Who could forget the giant stone ball rolling down the corridor, or the T-rex looming out of the darkness? True, nine times out of ten it all happened far too quickly and you were left breathless, as was Lara. But the shock was brilliant, and it wasn't such a hardship to go back and do it again.
Still. It's difficult to tell just how well the adrenaline moments will work without having played the game, and Crystal Dynamics certainly appears to be doing lots of other things right. Lara is more acrobatic and graceful than ever, the puzzles look clever and challenging, the environments are expansive, there's real atmosphere and it's visually stunning. As, of course, is Lara's arse. Let's hope that maybe, just maybe Tomb Raider: Underworld will start a new trend, and not just for arse over tits. Perhaps this time next year beautiful action-adventure games will be all the rage; no longer will shoot-the-monster-in-the-face titles dominate the catwalk. Who knows? Well, we all do, but it's nice to dream.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is due out on 21st November for PS3, 360, PC, Wii, PS2 and DS.